Did He Learn That From Me? {C.A.R.E.}

This piece is part of a series here at MKE Moms Blog entitled C.A.R.E. We want to initiate conversations about racial equality (CARE) and to call people into the discussion around social justice in our Milwaukee community and beyond. By having these conversations, even if they are uncomfortable at times, we hope to challenge ourselves and our readers.  We will support this dialogue with new perspectives, resources and ways to get involved. We are in this together and ultimately, we want to provide connections: Mom to Mom. And we believe in the power of stories to create these connections.

Racial Equality

We don’t pretend to be colorblind in our house. We talk about differences. I speak in what I hope is the right language of appreciation for diversity. We have books on respect, and love, and forgiveness, and feelings. Before I decided to stay home with my boys, I worked as a school counselor, so I like to think I’m prepared to talk about race with them.

Until that first time I’m taken completely by surprise by my four-year-old.

He’s talking about one of the kids we saw when we were at the park. A black boy. He’s noticing the color of his skin, which secretly I am proud of, because it means (I think) that I’ve created a space in our house where this kind of discussion is encouraged and welcomed.

But then he tells me that his skin is the color of a bad guy.

And I freeze.

At least, I think that is what he said, I’m not entirely certain I heard him correctly. When I ask him, perhaps with a little too much surprise and admonishment, ‘What did you just say?’ he stays silent. He hears from my tone that whatever it was he just said was not the right thing to say.

And immediately I kick myself for jumping on him so quickly. I am angry that I didn’t say to him “hmmmm, a bad guy?” and probe gently to see what he meant or where that idea might have come from.

Quickly I scan his four short years of life, wondering who he possibly could’ve heard that from (not his parents, I think, defensively). His best friend from school is biracial, his favorite (and only) uncle is black and his cousins are also biracial, we don’t watch much TV and certainly nothing with “bad guys” yet. Immediately I feel guilty and I spring into action.

I rush to the bookstore and pick up Shades of People and The Skin You Live In and All the Colors We Are, and vow to teach my son explicitly about race and difference and acceptance.

***

And so it surprises me later that afternoon when we are sitting on the couch reading these books that he’s only vaguely interested. “But wait,” I say, “look at all the beautiful colors of skin.” He scans the page briefly before inching off my lap and toward bookshelf full of dozens of other books, but not the ones I want to read right now. “Let’s read this one, Mama,” he says, handing me Good Night Good Night Construction Site. I sigh for so many reasons. “Wait, buddy, I want to finish this one,” I say, pointing to the black and Latino kids on the playground in this picture book. “Look at these kids, don’t they look like they are having fun playing together?” He shrugs and moves onto his Lego table. We are finished reading. 

***

A few weeks later I am having coffee with Dr. Fran Kaplan, the Virtual Coordinator of the Black Holocaust Museum, a fabulous online resource for African American history and the legacy of slavery based in Milwaukee. We are talking about how to raise race conscious children because there is a group of moms in my circle who are tired of inaction and really want to DO something with our kids around matters of social justice. Fran has spent more than half her life as a parent educator. She also lives in Sherman Park and has her own biracial and foster children. They are grown now, but she is intimately connected to our concerns and desires. She’s been where we are.

It didn’t surprise her that my son wasn’t interested in the books I bought, beautiful as the pictures might have been. “Kids don’t want to be lectured or taught,” she said.  They are smarter than we give them credit for, she tells me, and they know exactly what we’re trying to do, no use in trying to fool them. Instead of explicitly teaching, she says I should try stories. Stories that depicted kids of color doing things that kids do: playing, laughing, and essentially being kids. She suggests the wonderful books of Ezra Jack Keats.

And indeed, she is right, my son immediately loves these books following a little black boy in the snow, and a little black boy learning how to whistle for his dog.

racial equality

I want my sons to celebrate diversity. They will learn about Malcolm X and and Martin Luther King, Jr.; We will talk about segregation and Jim Crow and privilege. But I was reminded in my conversation with Dr. Kaplan and in reading more about raising race conscious children, that wanting to teach diversity does not ONLY mean I must talk about the struggles of people of color. Indeed, as author Rumaan Aman writes in an article for Slate, “Blackness, [or] any sort of difference, is not a burden. Relegating blackness or other sorts of difference to serious books that explicitly engage with issues creates a context in which it can seem like one. Yes, of course, we all benefit from reading about Rosa Parks or the horrors of slavery, but to give young readers who are black, brown, or any sort of different only books about their difference is burdensome. It looks like inclusiveness, but is an insult.” It’s a wonderful article about the importance of allowing kids to see children of all colors in books doing every day, ordinary, childlike things. 

***

No doubt, there will be more comments from my sons that leave me gasping and wondering where they learned such cruelty.

It will my job as their mother NOT to hush the conversation but instead to bring it to light so that we can expose the truth and extinguish the lies that have masqueraded far too long.

If you are interested in these kinds of discussions with your children, here are a few resources you might consider:

Raising Race Conscious Children (a wonderful website with resources on how to begin the dialogue with your children)

Erin Winkler, Associate Professor of Africology at Milwaukee’s own UWM, has written extensively on how children learn about race. Read her article, “Children are not Colorblind” here or watch her lecture on “How Kids Learn about Race, Stereotypes, and Prejudice” here. Both fascinating insights into the research behind the behavior. 

Or consider taking a trip to the library with your child and picking up a few books from this list or this list or this list! (All great ideas of books with diverse main characters). 

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